Radiation therapy has been used in the treatment of cancer for several decades. Often used in tandem with other cancer therapies, including surgery and chemotherapy, radiation is the least invasive cancer treatment, causing significantly less side effects than chemotherapy. Radiation is commonly suggested for the treatment of mesothelioma to lessen the severity of symptoms and to make the patient more comfortable. Radiation therapy does not cure mesothelioma.
How Does Radiation Work?
There are three forms of radiation that can be used to treat patients with cancer, but not all are suitable for mesothelioma patients. The three types of radiation include:
- External Beam Radiation – This is the most common form of the treatment and the one that was developed first. With external beam radiation, the patient sits or lies down and an external source of radiation is aimed directly at the affected area. The radiation is meant to kill cancer cells and stop their growth. Unfortunately, this treatment is rarely completely effective in the fight against mesothelioma and is generally offered as a multi-modal therapy in conjunction with chemotherapy or surgery. In addition, it can also destroy the healthy tissue around the affected site, resulting in skin irritation or pain.
- Brachytherapy – This type of radiation therapy allows a highly-concentrated dose of radiation to be delivered directly to the affected area of the body. It involves the implantation of tiny rods of radioactive material directly into or near the tumor, pinpointing the cancerous cells and causing little damage to healthy cells. In some cases, the rods are implanted for a short time and then removed. In other instances, they are left in place, but eventually stop emitting radiation.
- Unsealed Source Radiation – This type of radiation is only used for particular forms of cancer and is administered orally or through injection. The person who receives this kind of radiation is considered radioactive for the duration of the treatment and a short time afterwards. This is generally not used to treat mesothelioma of any kind.
Side Effects of Mesothelioma Radiation
Radiation is a localized treatment and side effects are generally limited to the area being treated. Side effects from radiation can show up a few days after treatment and can last for several weeks or months. Some side effects actually appear years later. Common side effects of radiation therapy include:
- Fatigue – This is the most common complaint of those undergoing radiation and many people report an extreme level of fatigue that is hard to conquer. Some individuals note that the fatigue lasts for months or years after the therapy is complete.
- Skin Damage or Changes – Radiation therapy has improved significantly over the years and skin damage is not as severe as years prior. However, redness, dryness and peeling may occur in addition to darkening of the skin. Patients should stay out of the sun and avoid using any lotions or other topical products that are not approved by their doctor.
- Mouth Problems – This includes inflammation or extreme dry mouth. Taste bud damage can also occur. These mouth concerns may cause weight loss because eating and swallowing can be difficult.
Other side effects of radiation can include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hair loss in the treatment area
- Urinary and bladder changes
- Sexual changes
An oncologist can suggest the best way to battle the effects of radiation. Patients should inform their doctor of all side effects even if they are listed as common in order to avoid any life-threatening situations.